Album Review: Low — HEY WHAT
Low’s thirteenth album HEY WHAT is both crushing and crushingly beautiful at the same time. Throughout, it seems like the ground is constantly crumbling and shifting underneath your feet, as emotions pour out in chaotic, dumbstruck fashion before you’re ready to even process them. It’s music that makes you feel something intrusively new, almost made with solely that imperative in mind.
The quest for sonic transcendence in pop music has often been plagued by tales of artistic self-indulgence, especially considering some of the narratives surrounding bands like My Bloody Valentine or Talk Talk. The remarkable thing about this era of Low is that their quest for originality feels driven by something a little more profound and visceral than simply ego or contrarianism: a sense of hope, or a perhaps sense of wondering whether you can still surprise yourself within the spectrums of recorded music after nearly three decades of releasing records.
There’s an early moment on HEY WHAT that leaves me scrambling for words and feelings. The foreboding machinery of opener “White Horses” accelerates into a cold, calculating clockwork of inevitability, faster and faster… but then. Then the notes and textures start to expand and soften, like chunks of ice turning translucent under a ray of warm light. Before you realise it, the voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, embalm you through the clipped arrangements of “I Can Wait”. The despair of predecessor Double Negative is still palpable, but it has become a launching point now instead of a tether holding everything in place.
On their third collaboration with refusenik producer BJ Burton, Low may have continued the pioneering ethos that started taking shape on 2015’s Ones and Sixes, but for all intents and purposes HEY WHAT is a very different record from any other Low record. Or any other record period. Though its warped, distorted sonics reach even further into the red numbers than on Double Negative — as the startling “White Horses” makes clear from the get-go — it’s ultimately a more generous, more giving record as a whole.
For a band known to master a slow-paced tension, it’s astounding how quickly HEY WHAT (a rather apt title, by the way) blindsides you. It seems a deliberate choice this time around to keep most of the lead vocals clear from any effects or productional tricks that might obfuscate the words, which is kind of funny, because it’s simultaneously the Duluth, Minnesota-based pair’s most lyrically sparse album too. Which is also saying something. The lyrics are fragmented yet sung with acute purpose, always imbued with enough universal meaning for listeners to latch onto. This intrepid hook-driven approach combined with even more sonic experimentation has created pop music that disintegrates any sort of cerebral defence mechanism.
As you’re still lingering within the heavenly ascent that is “I Can Wait”, the anti-gravity space rock splendor of “All Night” emanates a sense of wanderlust and relish that’s rare in Low’s notoriously claustrophobic inclinations. Their tryst with spirituality — as members of the Mormon church — has been abundantly documented, and often-times their music circled back into anguished introspection. It seems that on HEY WHAT, Parker and Sparhawk’s lifelong preoccupation with the beyond has coalesced organically with Burton’s own holistic quest to attain original sounds. This is a record that appears to forcefully tractor beam itself from the cynicism that so often takes hold of us when facing the world’s myriad issues head-on.
The slow-motion static current of “Disappearing” finds inspiration in the deep blue yonder of Lake Superior and the ships that travel in and out. It touches base with this basic human inquisition, religious, secular or otherwise: is there a beyond, and if so, what would that look like exactly? Judging by the otherworldly nature of the music they produced together, Low and Burton seem quite entertained by the thought. The band’s underrated, wry sense of humor rears its head on the nearly eight-minute long “Hey”. The “we didn’t get past Michigan and Lake before we found ourselves beneath the weight” references the fact that Lake Avenue isn’t actually a lake, but a bridge over Michigan Street. The track dissolves about halfway into complete ambience, as if a banal interaction is stretched into slow motion. Despite knowing the song is partly based on an inside-joke, it’s completely spellbinding and otherworldly.
“Hey” and “Days Like These” are the two epics on HEY WHAT, using immediate pop melodics as a way to kickstart the listener into the vast, bewildering cosmos. Even as its hefty structures crumble, those two familiar voices are always hovering around somewhere, making sure your ears can fully take in the odd, spectral ambience. The excruciatingly intimate “Don’t Walk Away” starts with cut-up vocal loops that briefly sound like a drunk circus: it’s as if the music itself is struggling to confess something, understanding the sheer immensity of the kind deep-seated relationship Parker and Sparhawk have tended to over the years. It’s one of the many moments on HEY WHAT that catches you off guard and leaves you open for yet another emotional sucker punch; “I have slept beside you now / for what seems a thousand years / the shadow in your night / the whisper in your ear.”
By the time the abrasive, almost deliberately unpleasant sounding “More” seethes through your ear holes like a two-way drive stuck in reverse, HEY WHAT has blown the mind too many times already to even care. The decidedly epic “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)” overloads so much on sonic debris that it makes rock instrumentation sound like some kind of apocalyptic Wagnerian orchestra.
Even today, the music discourse seems swept up in the mythology around the spry but tortured artist reaching for some kind of pinnacle before the world was ready to understand. Low prove once again they are the sweet antithesis of that: a band who have had decades to hone their work within their own slow and deliberate pace and environment, making their most vital, forward-thinking music at an age where it can be utmost nurtured. I honestly hope many emerging artists will draw inspiration from that right now.
Originally published at https://beatsperminute.com on September 10, 2021.